Known for his tremendous work in integrating the defensive style into the New York Knicks team character in the first half of the 1990s, Pat Riley took over the Miami Heat on September 1st, 1995. Riles knew how to get the job done in the post-Jordan era.
After losing their playoff series vs. the Bulls in 1991, 1992, and 1993, the 1993/94 New York Knicks’ cashed in’ on Jordan’s absence and made it to the 1994 NBA finals, which they eventually lost in an epic Game 7. After four full seasons with the Knicks, Riley felt that the team built around superstar center Pat Ewing had reached its maximum potential and was keen to move elsewhere.
Eager to take the new challenges, his next NBA stop was Miami, Florida. He aimed to build up the Atlantic division champion and eventual contender around another Georgetown product – Alonzo Mourning.
Just a quarter of a year earlier, Michael Jordan announced his comeback from retirement and rejoined the Chicago Bulls, the team he previously led to three consecutive championship rings from 1991 to 1993.
This event significantly changed Riley’s future championship plans with the Heat. Now it wasn’t only the Knicks, but also the hungry Bulls led by the NBA’s most unstoppable player of the 1980s and 1990s. Defense was the definite trademark of the 1996/97 Heat team, which won the Atlantic Division champion title with 61-21 record while limiting opponents at 89.3 ppg (3rd in the NBA). The Pistons had done it with defense in the late 1980s, and the Knicks were very close to doing it.
In the effort to take over the Eastern Conference and the NBA, Riley contemplated stopping Jordan with all means possible. In essence, already during the 1995/96 season, he tried with Peja Danilovic, Rex Chapman, and Dan Majerle, but with little success. That season, Jordan torched the Heat with 32.0 ppg while hitting 48.3% of his shots.
But, one year later, in the 1997 NBA playoffs, it would be the much less publicized 2nd-year Heat pro, 6’4″ Voshon Leonard, who gave His Airness the biggest headache since his 1995 return to the League. The 1997 Eastern Conference final series between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat is the only playoff series in Jordan’s entire career in which he shot under 40% for the series!
Lenard somehow wasn’t alone in this precisely planned and coordinated team effort to wear down the GOAT. The Heat also rotated the quicker Tim Hardaway and taller Jamaal Mashburn to help out tenacious Lenard in the exceptionally demanding defensive task of guarding Jordan on the perimeter.
But even if MJ got around the first line of the Heat defense, Alonzo Mourning and P.J. Brown did everything they could to prevent him from hitting the basket from the mid-range or scoring from the paint. Alonzo Mourning was ready for war coming into the game against the Bulls.
“We’re gonna win on Monday. We gonna come ready, ready to play. And we will not play the way we played today, on Monday, without a doubt.”
Jordan’s series shooting slump reached the lowest point in Game 4, in which he missed an unbelievable 26 of 35 shots! However, despite his poor shooting, Jordan kept his focus and tried to contribute to his team in other aspects of the game, such as defense and rebounding. That helped the Bulls to keep the game relatively close.
MJ shot 0/11 in the first half and 0/14 before making his first field goal in the defensive battle between the two contenders. Throughout the first three quarters, Jordan hit only 2 out of 22 field-goal attempts!
However, in the 4th quarter, he went on a late tear scoring 20 points! And, in another epic clutch time performance, Jordan hit a jumper over Lenard with only 2:17 left in the game to cut Miami lead to 1.
“He turned the first-class disaster into another Jordan classic! – Marv Albert”
However, even MJ’s heroics late in the game weren’t enough to save the day for the Bulls in Miami. Miami won the game by 87-80 and cut the series deficit to 1-3. But only two days later, on May 28th, 1997, the Bulls, led by Jordan (28 points), rebounded from their previous performance, and won Game 5 by 100-84, thus winning the series by 4-1 en route to their second consecutive NBA championship title. Even though Jordan shot the ball 38.7% in the 1997 ESF, he still managed to average 30.2 ppg.
Basketball Network contributor Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj is the 1980s and 1990s basketball specialist, proud author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’.